Interview with Claire Smith about White-tailed Eagles in Scotland and the reintroduction project in eastern Scotland

Date of the interview: 26 January 2009

In this interview Claire Smith from the RSPB talks about the situation of White-tailed Eagles in Scotland and the ongoing reintroduction program in eastern Scotland.

Claire Smith

Claire Smith with Sea Eagle. © Dave Anderson

Markus Jais: Why and when did White-tailed Eagles become extinct in the UK?
Claire Smith: The last known breeding attempt was on Skye in 1916. The last individual (an albino female) was shot on Shetland in 1918.

Markus Jais: When and where did the first reintroduction projects start?
Claire Smith: The earliest attempt was in 1959 at Loch Etive, Argyllshire (ref: Sandeman, P. 1965. An attempted reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle to Scotland, Scottish Birds, 3:411) an adult and 2 juveniles were obtained from Norway, 1 was captured, 1 killed in a trap and 1 disappeared. This was followed by the release of four birds on Fair Isle by Roy Dennis in 1968, one dies after being oiled by fulmars and the rest had disappeared within 10 months. The first formal (and successful) re-introduction began on the Isle of Rum in 1975, a total of 82 birds were released over the next ten years. A second project then ran in Wester Ross (NW Scotland) releasing 58 birds between 1993 & 1998.

Markus Jais: What is the current status of the reintroduced birds on the West Coast (pairs, number of young fledged) in 2009?
Claire Smith: In 2009, 46 pairs fledging 36 chicks. There are around 200 individual birds on the west coast.

Markus Jais: Why and when did the 2nd reintroduction project on the East Coast start?
Claire Smith: 2007. White-tailed eagles would once have been spread throughout the UK and there are historical breeding records of the birds at the Bass rock in the forth estuary and throughout Perthshire (both areas near the current release site). White-tailed eagles spread by infilling available habitat near their parents with the majority breeding <50km away from the natal area. We are therefore trying to secure the future of this species in Scotland by speeding up its spread and re-population, this will also strengthen the existing west coast population in terms of numbers and genes.

Sea Eagle release

Sea Eagle release, © Andy Hay.

Markus Jais: Where do the young come from?
Claire Smith: Collected over a 200km area between Bergen and just north of Alesund in central-western Norway.

Markus Jais: How many birds have been released so far at the east coast?
Claire Smith: 44 of which 33 are still alive.

Markus Jais: How many do you plan to release in the coming years?
Claire Smith: 80-100. Recruitment of re-introduced white-tailed eagles in Scotland has been lower (est 33%) therefore this number was chosen based on population modelling of the west coast population.

Markus Jais: When do you think can we expect the first breeding?
Claire Smith: 2012 at the very earliest.

Markus Jais: Are all birds marked and tracked?
Claire Smith: Yes. All birds released on the East coast are fitted with patagial wing tags (the colour denoting the year of birth) on both wings with and individual letter/number. In 2008, licensing restrictions meant that we had to fit oxidised colour rings (silver/red) with individual 2-digit number, in line with European scheme. All wild-bred chicks from the west coast were fitted with wing tags until 2007, they are now fitted with oxidised aluminium colour rings in line with the European scheme. We felt that we wanted to continue with wing tags on the East as we have a large population of untrained observers and also helps with any livestock concerns, as well as providing information on recruitment, although wing tags do break down and fall off eventually so older birds are unmarked. All released birds are fitted with vhf radio-backpacks with a five-year battery life, so we can monitor their survival and breeding up until they start to settle on home ranges. 4-5 wild bred chicks are being fitted with satellite tags on the west coast each year to look at juvenile dispersal. You can follow some of these birds here:

Sea Eagle release

Sea Eagle release, © Andy Hay.

Markus Jais: Do birds from the east coast appear on the west coast and vice versa?
Claire Smith: Yes, since releases began 8 individual birds have visited the west coast population. Although some west coast birds have always wandered east in winter, we have really seen an increase in the last year of juvenile and sub-adult birds in East and Central Scotland. We have also had three released birds from SW Ireland visit Scotland, missing with the East and West populations. One re-introduced Scottish birds returned to Norway where she is currently breeding!

Markus Jais: What is the main food for Sea Eagles on the east coast once they get independent?
Due to the location of the release site near the Tay estuary, Montrose basin and Loch Leven, it is wintering wildfowl, initially injured or sick birds, carrion, rabbits.

Markus Jais: What are the main threats to the released birds on the east coast?
Claire Smith: Persecution, electrocution and train collision.

Markus Jais: Some people fear that the Sea Eagles may kill many lambs. Do you have any current numbers and data from research on this topic?
Claire Smith: A study undertaken by the Scottish Government: (Mick Marquiss, Mike Madders & David Carss. White-tailed eagles & lambs predation or scavenging? Sea eagle 2000. Conference proceedings.) in response to concerns from farmers on Mull found that 8 pairs of sea eagles killed between 33 and 37 live lambs a year and of these the majority were not viable (i.e. sickly or diseased). This is approximately 1 lamb per 1000 breeding sheep and and did not represent significant losses at an island level. Following the concerns of crofters on the Gairloch peninsula (North-west Scotland) which holds two pairs of white-tailed eagles, a further study was funded last year, the results of this have not yet been published.

Markus Jais: Is there competition between Sea Eagles and Golden Eagles?
Claire Smith: Evidence for serious competition between the two species in Scotland since reintroduction is weak. Some commentators have suggested that Sea Eagles may yet displace Golden Eagles from coastal areas, but this seems unlikely to be a major constraint on Golden Eagle populations in Scotland, compared with the continuing effects of persecution and land-use change.

Released White-tailed Sea Ealge

Released White-tailed Sea Ealge, © Andy Guppy

Markus Jais: For how many sea eagles do you think is place in Scotland if all suitable habitat could be recolonised?
Claire Smith: 250-500 pairs, depending on the degree to which lowland habitats are successfully colonised.

Markus Jais: What should bird watchers do when they spot a Sea Eagle with a wing tag or colour ring?
Claire Smith: Make a note of the place, date, time, plumage (adult versus juvenile), colour-ring or tag colour and if possible the symbol on the tag or number on the ring (West coast birds have had oxidised colour-ring fitted since 2008 (inline with the European scheme and our released birds in 2008 have colour rings due to a licensing hiccuop) and email:
Whether an East or West coast bird the sighting will get passed on and entered in the national database.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with White-tailed Eagles?
Claire Smith: Too many to pick just one! Watching chicks being ringed on Canna at a cliff nest, the first chicks I brought down from a nest in Norway in 2008. Watching an adult WTE and adult golden eagle have a territorial battle in Norway. The first time I observed one of the released birds kill a pink-footed goose, seeing eight juvenile eagles soar above me at a roost, the first time I watched our young release birds talon grapple, an adult cruise low over a village on the Isle of Skye….

Markus Jais: Claire, thank you very much for the interview.

Further Information

RSPB: East Scotland Sea Eagles